Pressure piles on Rishi Sunak over schools concrete scandal

First cabinet meeting of new parliament sees government battling to contain school repairs criticism

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it was 'completely and utterly wrong' to blame him for failing to fully fund school rebuilding. Photo: 10 Downing Street
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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gathered his cabinet in Downing Street on Tuesday as pressure mounted on his government over the crumbling schools scandal.

More than 100 schools in England have been fully or partially closed due to the risk posed by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac), which is prone to sudden collapse.

Thousands of pupils have had to return to online learning while schools try to find safe classrooms.

The start of the new academic year in England has been mired in chaos, with ministers trading blame.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan faced her cabinet colleagues on Tuesday morning during the first meeting of Mr Sunak's top team since the Commons’ summer break.

She has been criticised for her handling of the situation after admitting to being on holiday in Spain in the lead-up to ordering school closures.

According to a report by the National Audit Office earlier this year, Raac was found to be in at least 65 schools in England after 196 completed surveys. More than 20 venues required emergency action to mitigate the risk.

NAO chief Gareth Davies accused the Sunak administration of adopting a “sticking plaster approach” to the matter.

In an article for The Times, Mr Davies suggested the government had wasted money on emergency repairs to schools deemed at risk because essential maintenance had previously been sidelined.

“Getting good value for public spending means giving sufficient priority to unflashy but essential tasks such as efficiently maintaining public buildings and replacing obsolete technology, as well as to more eye-catching new projects,” he said.

“Embedding a culture of innovation and evaluation is urgent so that small improvements are encouraged and successful ones quickly scaled up.”

The issue was discussed at the beginning of the cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters, but declined to say how much time was allocated to the topic.

The government is taking a “precautionary approach to dealing with Raac” and prioritising children's safety, the spokesman said.

He said a clear picture of the “risk posed by Raac has evolved significantly over the summer months” and the government is being “proactive”.

The Prime Minister admitted on Monday that hundreds more schools could have been built using Raac.

Downing Street said the total number was expected to be in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

Schools minister Nick Gibb claimed the Department for Education’s response to the crisis has been “world leading”.

“We’re talking about a small number of schools out of 22,500 schools, but we have conducted surveys since March last year, so we know where Raac is, and we’re sending in surveyors to identify Raac,” he said on Tuesday.

He said his department bid for 200 school refurbishments a year in 2021 but only 50 were funded by the Treasury.

He dismissed the claim that school closures had been ordered without a plan in place.

Reports suggest there are no structural engineers available to work at some schools where Raac has been found.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the department had assigned 50 caseworkers to every school affected by the concrete crisis.

“We have arrangements in place with utility companies, with portable cabin suppliers, with companies that put props in to prop up Raac where that’s the most suitable solution, we have property experts available,” he said.

A whistleblower at the Department for Education claimed Mr Sunak had ignored warning Raac in schools posed a “critical risk to life” while he served as chancellor.

The Prime Minister was quick to deflect blame, saying it is “completely and utterly wrong’’ to suggest he is to blame for failing to fully fund a rebuilding programme for English schools while he was in charge of the Treasury.

Ms Keegan’s frustration was evident after she swore in off-the-cuff remarks following an interview with ITV on Monday.

She also claimed others had sat “and done nothing”, but it was not clear whom she was referring to.

The Education Secretary later apologised for her “choice language”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer hit out at the Tories, saying cabinet members had tried to “blame anyone but themselves” for the schools scandal.

He said it was “unforgivable” that children were missing the start of term due to the crumbling concrete crisis.

Opening a meeting of his reshuffled shadow cabinet, Sir Keir said: “Children are not at school today because of the action the government has failed to take in relation to schools. That is unforgivable.

“It is a metaphor, frankly, for their sticking plaster politics: never fixing the fundamentals – always sticking plasters.”

Updated: September 05, 2023, 11:34 AM